The Height of Winter

Reporter, December 2012

As mountains go, Mont Tremblant is an old one: The Laurentians formed more than half a billion years ago, long before the Rockies, the Alps or the Himalayas were a twinkle in any skier’s eye. Still, the Tremblant name is extraordinarily young: Until 1936, the mountain was known as Manitonga Soutana – the Spirits’ Mountain – so named by the Algonquin, who believed that it would tremble if humans interfered excessively with the natural order of things. Ironically, one year later, the American gold prospector Joseph Ryan summited the mountain, vowing to create North America’s largest ski resort on the site.

Fortunately, perhaps, Ryan fell short of his goal. Since he built the mountain’s first ski lift, in 1939, Tremblant has developed significantly, but always with restraint, guided by a profound respect for nature. The spirits, it seems, have been satisfied. The mountain itself, of course, is the main attraction. With 654 acres of skiable terrain, locals swear that even after a lifetime, they discover new spots. Start your quest for hidden gems on the Versant Edge, one of the mountain’s four faces, and typically home to Tremblant’s fluffiest snow and most pristine glade runs.

On chilly days, visit the always-sunny Versant Soleil. Warm up with beef stew at Le Refuge, a log cabin nestled among the evergreens. The cabin’s not 250 years old, but with worn wooden beams, it sure feels like it. Adding to the charm is ski guide Richard Trépanier, who often swaps his poles for a guitar and leads lively singalongs inside.

If your stew has left you sluggish, opt for more sedentary thrills at the Casino de Mont-Tremblant, a ski-in, ski-out gambling hall. Here, floor-to-ceiling windows flood the wood-and-slate casino with natural light and surround it with snowscape scenery. If you get lucky, head upstairs to the seafood restaurant Altitude, which offers many delicious ways to blow your winnings.

After a long day, there’s no better retreat than La Quintessence, a 30-suite boutique hotel about 400 metres (1,300 feet) from the foot of the mountain. (The proximity doesn’t deter the bellmen from chauffeuring ski boot-clad guests.) Here, standard rooms offer 56 square metres (600 square feet) of alpine opulence, complete with rustic luxe furnishings and a wood-burning fireplace that includes a pre-built fire awaiting your spark. (If, however, striking a match is too much responsibility, simply summon the fire concierge.) It will be tough to peel yourself off the leather club couch, but the spa makes a compelling case: It offers a steam room and sauna, and outdoors, a hot tub and a pool kept at a chilly 18 degrees Celsius (65 degrees Fahrenheit). The combination – alternately invigorating and relaxing – is enhanced by the view over the infinity pool, across the snow-covered Lac Tremblant.

La Quintessence, which sits on the cusp of the pedestrian village, is independent of Intrawest, the developer that has owned the mountain and the village itself since 1991. “The hotel offers an escape from the madness of the resort,” says general manager Michel Tremblay. “We’re close to everything, but different from anything else.”

After a shower and a power nap, head downstairs for chef Jean-François Lalandec’s contemporary Québécois cuisine. Don’t fill up on the seafood platter’s oversized shrimp, oysters and lobster; the foie gras – served with pear, strawberry and onion compote, and paired with a 1980 Coteaux du Layon – cannot be missed.

After dinner, venture into the village for a postprandial pint at La Diable microbrewery. With Hendrix and Clapton as your companions, and an eclectic selection of wall-mounted beer coasters as decor, work across the row of devil-ear beer taps. Start conservatively, with the Blizzard, a white beer; move on to the blond Septième Ciel; and finish with Extrême Onction, a potent, Belgian trappist-inspired brew.

Your nightcap awaits at Ryan’s Lounge, which is named for the resort’s founder and set in his former home. It’s unlikely, however, that a live DJ and a bathroom disco ball were ever part of Joseph Ryan’s vision. Still, manager Gregory Dewachter says, Ryan would approve: “He would probably enjoy his cigar – if smoking was permitted inside – and a whisky.” The cocktail menu offers classics – Tom Collins, Rusty Nail – alongside new creations, like the Maple (Bailey’s, milk, maple syrup and Sortilège, a maple liqueur).

The next morning, head north, past sheetwhite fields, to Expédition Wolf. Before you see the dogsledding outfit’s green chalet, you might just hear the symphony of car alarms, techno beats, babies and coyotes, courtesy of 300-plus dogs. Things go quiet, however, once the dogs are permitted to do what they love most: pull you through winding, snowy trails in the woods.

With six dogs pulling your sled, you won’t reach breakneck speeds. Consider it an opportunity to practice the fundamentals – leaning into turns, braking on descents and indiscriminately shouting “Hup! Hup!” After 45 minutes, the group stops for hot cocoa, but mushers don’t need the heat with all the hard work.

Mushers do need hearty meals, so book ahead for Ital Delli, a trattoria in the old village, about fivekilometres (3.5 miles) southwest of Intrawest’s resort village. Start with an aperitif at the 110-year-old Resto Pub au Coin, where blackand- white ski team photos and plaques from long-forgotten races adorn the wood-panelled walls. The white tablecloth dining room at the back offers moules frites and duck confit, but for a game of darts and a pint of Saint-Ambroise cream ale, the front room works best.

With your stomach rumbling, go down the block to Ital Delli, where faux-brick wallpaper offers “views” of Tuscany. “It’s not the fanciest restaurant,” says Marie-Annick Doré, who bought the place with her chef-husband, Adam Weston, five years ago. “It’s a mom-and-pop shop. We serve rustic Italian food, with simple, fresh ingredients.” Weston works with local producers, changing his menu seasonally and focusing on classics, like bolognese and carbonara pastas. The restaurant is family-friendly, and a television by the entrance plays children’s films. (Doré calls it “the babysitter.”) Fancy it’s not, but Ital Delli is so earnest that even the kitschy wallpaper charms. It’s a nice contrast to the polished resort nearby. “I’m happy the resort is there,” says Doré, “but I’m happy to be here. This is the original Tremblant.”

No one would claim that Saint-Jovite, about 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) south, is the original Mont Tremblant – it was amalgamated with the city in 2000 – but it’s not short on character. Find an oversized souvenir at Le Coq Rouge, where owner Fabienne Van Huffel has decorated a 135-year-old home in impeccable chalet chic. Here, made-in-Québec antiques, like a centuryold white armoire and a 90-year-old pine trunk, sit alongside contemporary pieces, like Van Gogh sofas and Chandler 4 Corners cushions.

Nearby, find an even more rustic souvenir at Tannerie Michel, where Michel Seguin and his wife, Rachel Mercier, have been curing, liming and pickling for 35 years. Together, they handmake their merchandise, from pheasant feather dream catchers to elbow-length fur mittens and sheepskin moccasins. Mercier greets customers while Seguin works in the basement – unless he’s out tending his traps, set nearby. “Most things are made in China nowadays,” he says. “C’est dommage. What we offer is truly Québécois.”

With a piece of Québec in hand, put some in your belly at sEb l’Artisan Culinaire, which sommelier and co-owner Guy Bourbonnière calls a “Québécois terroir restaurant.” Set in an 80-year-old house on a residential street, sEb offers creative plates, inspired by chef Sébastien Houle’s globetrotting years as head chef on Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht, Tatoosh. Opt for the suckling pig loaf, made with fingerling potatoes, mustard emulsion and Québécois squeaky cheese, or the scampi-stuffed rabbit saddle – complemented by Bourbonnière’s surprising wine picks. “It’s easy to pair sangiovese with beef,” he says. “We try to be creative.”

The restaurant is guided by what Bourbonnière calls “Québécois hospitality.” He says, “We don’t do two services: You have the table all night.” The philosophy works: As diners leave sEb, they can often be heard saying, “See you next year,” as though it were “See you tomorrow.”

If such quick familiarity sounds odd, it won’t by the end of an evening here – or, indeed, a weekend in Tremblant. It’s a destination that quickly feels like home, a place with a remarkable power to inspire its visitors, as they leave restaurants, check out of hotels or board flights, to say, quite naturally, “See you next year.”

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